How Much Does Microsoft Matter?

July 6, 2010

Over the weekend, the New York Times had an interesting article in its Technology section about Microsoft’s continuing stumbles in the consumer electronics market.   The immediate impetus for the article was provided by Microsoft’s recent announcement that it would kill its “Kin” line of smartphones, only two months after the devices first arrived in stores.  The Kin phones were intended to appeal primarily to young, hip consumers, but they apparently didn’t appeal to many people of any demographic; according to the article, fewer than 10,000 Kin phones were sold.

Microsoft employees were dismayed when they anonymously visited Verizon stores and discovered that employees for the carrier were reluctant to sell the Kin, said a Microsoft executive close to the Kin project. Verizon, the only carrier behind the Kin, tended to promote phones running Google’s Android software.

“It was killed abruptly because no one was buying it and there no was no credible reason to believe anyone would,” this person said.

Microsoft is,of course, a phenomenally successful company, but the majority of its profits come from just two product lines: the Windows operating system, and the Office suite of productivity applications.  The Xbox game console has been a modest success, but most of Microsoft’s other attempts to make headway in the consumer market have been flops.  Even in the business markets that it dominates, it has seemed at times to be losing its touch.  It has never made much headway with its tablet PC products, which to me always appeared to be a solution in search of a problem.  Owing to its own failure to update the Internet Explorer browser (many firms are still using IE version 6), Microsoft lost significant share in the browser market, first to Mozilla’s Firefox, and more recently to Google’s Chrome.  The Vista version of the Windows operating system was received with a distinct, and in my opinion entirely deserved, lack of enthusiasm.  (Windows 7 does seem to be better, but I have had no direct experience with it.)

The more dangerous development for Microsoft, though, is that the software development community seems to have lost interest in the Microsoft platform.  Historically, with the PC, a developer of a new application knew that it had to work on Windows if it were to have any commercial success.  The dramatic rise in popularity of mobile devices and Web-based applications has changed that, and Microsoft is no longer the automatic first choice.

“Microsoft is totally off the radar of the cool, hip, cutting-edge software developers,” said Tim O’Reilly, who publishes a popular line of software development guides.

“And they are largely out of the consciousness of your average developer.”

The growth and increasing maturity of open-source software projects like Mozilla’s Firefox, OpenOffice, and the Linux operating system have also had an impact.  If I were running a start-up company, I think I would have difficulty justifying to my investors spending several hundred dollars a head for Microsoft Office, for example, when I could have OpenOffice  at essentially zero cost.  I am sometimes asked about selecting software to run Web servers, and virtually always recommend some flavor of Linux.  The questioner sometimes follows up by asking if Microsoft Windows server software might be better.  I reply by saying, “What do you think you know about running Web servers that people like Amazon, Yahoo, and Google don’t know?”  (Incidentally, if you are curious about what system is used on a given site, the UK networking firm Netcraft has a “What’s That Site Running?” query page.)

Microsoft has developed, and continues to offer, some fine products.  For example, when it was introduced, Excel was clearly superior, generally speaking, to other spreadsheet software for the PC.   But I think that the company may have become in some sense a victim of its own success, and may have gotten too stuck in the traditional PC paradigm of one user equals one computer.  It would be odd and ironic if that were to damage Microsoft — just ask anyone at IBM.


Firefox 4 Beta Available

July 6, 2010

Those of you who like to experiment with, and contribute to the development of, new software may be interested to know that Mozilla has released the first public beta version of Firefox 4, the next major release of the open-source browser.   A post on the Mozilla Blog announces the availability of the beta, and gives an overview of the new features that are included.  You can get the detailed Release Notes here, and download the beta (which is available for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows) from this page.

This is beta software, and is not yet suitable for use in critical applications, or in a production environment.  However, if you have the time and inclination to do a bit of testing and experimentation, you can help make the final version better.  The beta comes with a “Feedback” add-on that allows you to send feedback to the developers by clicking a single button.  Have fun!


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